Pandora’s Box

India’s war with coronavirus is not the only domestic challenge it faces today 

By Rudra Sen 

On the 24th of March, Prime Minister Modi announced a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus while handing down a four-hour notice. He urged all to stay at home and assured citizens that the supply of essential items would not be disrupted and therefore there was no need to panic buy essential items. The appeal of ‘staying at home’ resounded with those high up in the social strata and those with a roof over their heads. 

While the lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus, it immediately resulted in the loss of livelihood for daily wage earners, who travel to metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai from rural India in search of employment. The Indian government perhaps didn’t realise before the announcement, the impact the lockdown was going to have on migrant workers. It was then too late for the tens of millions of urban migrants who were stranded in cities without jobs due to the lockdown. These migrants were left without any means of income, sustenance or shelter. To make matters worse, there was no public or private transport available to ferry them home safely. 

Combined with the lack of reassurance by the central government, these factors resulted in migrants deciding to travel hundreds of kilometres on foot. Some tried to take the dangerous occasional lift by willing truck drivers in their pursuit to reach home. The treacherous walk home during the Indian summer has caused the deaths of many due to starvation, heat and motor related accidents. 

The first wave of frustration and despair of migrants was seen in the Anand Vihar Bus Terminal in Delhi which was flocked by thousands of migrants in their bid catch a ride back home. The inaccessibility of public transport and the government’s ignorance to address this issue in the initial months of the lockdown led to the emergence of a humanitarian crisis. Migrations at such scale in India were last witnessed during the partition between India and Pakistan in 1947. Photographs and videos reflecting on the distressing circumstances of these migrants are alarmingly similar too. After much criticism, over 9 million migrants availed the option to board special trains arranged by the government. 

Photograph: On the left showing Muslims leaving India to go to Pakistan and on the right migrants waiting for buses to transport them back home (Source: Hindustan Times and News 18) 

In times when governments across the globe are trying to enforce strict social distancing norms, India faced yet another challenge to this end. A challenge, not on account of its vast population and densely populated slums, but in the form of a super cyclone. The Amphan super cyclone, hitting the eastern part of India, is said to be the fiercest storm the state of West Bengal has seen in over a century. About half a million people were evacuated in the states of West Bengal and Odisha. The Director General of the National Disaster Response Force, Pradhan stated that it was indeed a new normal to handle natural disaster in the midst of a pandemic. The cyclone caused the death of over 70 people and destroyed dozens of houses; further crippling the public health infrastructure. To add to India’s woes, cyclone Nisarga is expected to cross Maharashtra and Gujarat with windspeeds of 90-100 kilometres per hour on the 3rd of June. 

The promise of food security made by the Prime Minister looks bleak too. India is facing its worse attack of locust swarms in decades. 

Warm waters in the Indian Ocean (caused by a phenomenon called Indian Ocean Dipole) in the latter part of 2019 caused heavy rainfall in these arid regions resulting in moist sand and green vegetation, favourable for the breeding of desert locusts. Global warming has amplified this phenomenon by making waters warmer and thereby causing heavier rainfall than usual. 

Locusts in the 2019-2020 crop season destroyed 3.75 hectares of agricultural land ensuing a 100 crore rupees loss. This year, these migratory pests have already destroyed 2 lakh hectares and threaten to destroy further 6 lakh hectares of agricultural land. Rabi crop has been harvested and kharif crop is yet to be sown, hence, the damage to crop is not significant yet. The concern of the government is two-fold. One, whether it will be able to manage this looming threat by monsoon to minimise effect on kharif crops. Secondly, will locusts create a psychological fear among farmers to sow less or not to sow at all during the monsoon? The UN FAO also warns that locusts can have severe consequences on food security and livelihoods if not controlled. It stresses on the severity of the threat posed by locusts by using an example, that a swarm of locusts as big as the city of Paris can consume food as much as half the population of France consumes in day. 

Prime Minister Modi is in a uniquely uncomfortable position. Since the latter part of 2019, he has been subject to a high degree of criticism, surfacing due to the Citizenship Amendment Act and consequently leading to protests and unrest across the country. The violent communal riots in the North-East region of Delhi has affected his credibility as a statesman internationally too. The economy has been on the downward spiral with growth at 7.2% in 2017, 6.8% in 2018 and 5% in 2019.

The International Labour Organisation stated that the coronavirus pandemic is the worst global crisis since the second World War and that 400 million workers in India’s informal sector are at risk of falling deeper into poverty. India’s best hope would be that the Prime Minister is the ‘jack of all trades and the master of none’ to tackle these domestic challenges arising from various spheres.

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